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  • Writer's pictureMaria Wade

Humility: The Power of Keeping an Open-Mind

“Humility is the most important quality in a leader. Being humble doesn't mean to be passive. This is a difficult dichotomy to balance. But as with all the dichotomies–being strong, but not overbearing, for example–just the awareness of these two opposing forces becomes one of the most powerful tools at a leader's disposal. Leaders must be humble enough to listen to new ideas, willing to learn strategic insights, and open to implementing new and better tactics and strategies. But a leader must also be ready to stand firm when there are clearly unintended consequences that negatively impact the mission and risk harm to the team.” - The Dichotomy of Leadership, J. Willink and L. Babin.

Humility vs. low self-esteem, passivity and weakness.

At first glance, these concepts may not have seemingly any connection, but once we dig under the surface a little bit, we see that there is sometimes confusion between them. Of course, we know there is a difference between pervasive self-doubt and being self-aware enough to realize you do not know everything.

So, why does this confusion happen, what does humility look like in action and what is our ultimate goal when it comes to being humble?

Let’s start with some definitions…

Humility is defined as the “willingness to seek advice, to listen to other people’s point of view, and to be open to changing her own approach.”

Low self-esteem is seen as a lack of confidence in who you are or what you can do.

When you are humble, you recognize that you're flawed and have weaknesses. In contrast, having low self-esteem is only viewing yourself as having flaws and weaknesses, and rarely acknowledging your own strengths.

What does humility look like in practice?

While often mistaken for pure weakness, true humility is no such thing. It requires a comfortability in one’s own abilities and a confidence that denies the need for validation or applause. It can also look like vulnerability and a willingness to admit when you were wrong or that someone else may have the answers and information that you do not. These characteristics have traditionally not been valued in a leader; they are now required attributes.

I like the way Adam Grant talks about the concept of “intellectual humility.” Normally, we’re searching for evidence that we are correct. We feel the need to be right and we research to prove our point of view. Intellectual humility, however, allows our minds to stay open and curious. It actually allows us to be comfortable being -- *gasp* -- wrong!

But, if you are wrong, if you don’t have all the answers, if you need to say “let me look into that and I’ll get back to you,” how are you perceived? Do you lose credibility in your confidence?

Ultimate Goal is Balance

So, this is confusing, right? You may be thinking to yourself, “But, Maria, you just talked to us all about confidence and now we are supposed to be OK to throw up our hands, simply be curious and defer to others on everything?”

No! We want to come across as confident and self-assured, but also curious and want to be open-minded.

What can we do?

As with many things in life, the ultimate goal is balance.

This is about presenting confidently but also being humble enough to keep an open mind to others’ perspectives. This is about taking a stand but also being curious and open to new points of view.

Together, I believe, that through our humble actions, we can dispel the myth that confidence = competence and humility = ignorance.

Do you have another perspective? I am both confident and curious!

*If you enjoyed this post, you may like my latest post on confidence.

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